As common as protests are in Korea, a demonstration on the sports field of a primary school is a rare sight. But on Feb. 9 the grounds of Seobu Elementary School in the southeastern city of Ulsan swelled with some twenty people holding banners and pickets.
"Consider first a foreign school!!" "Give us an alternative so that we can send our children to school without worrying!!" they read.
And what exactly was so worrying? Apparently 28 children who arrived in South Korea on Aug. 26. They belong to a group of Afghan citizens formerly employed on Korean military and government projects before the Taliban takeover of the country on Aug 15.
Much like Western leaders that evacuated Afghans with close ties to their governments, president Moon Jae-in made the decision to fly these 391 people including family members to Incheon on military aircrafts. And after spending almost half a year in temporary housing, they are being resettled throughout the country, with the largest percentage (40 percent, amounting to 29 families) relocated to Ulsan early this month. Their breadwinners were hired by a subcontractor of Hyundai Heavy Industries, a major engineering firm with its production base in the region.
Ulsan residents claim the government informed them about the relocation only on Feb. 3 without prior consultation. Some of them demand that not so many Afghan families be sent to this industrial city.
The reaction wasn't unforeseeable. The fiery public opposition to Yemeni refugees in 2018 showed how this would go, and the rescue in August—dubbed "Operation Miracle" by the government—was not universally approved. Meanwhile, a debate rages on in Daegu—another city in the region—over the construction of a small mosque for the local Muslim student community.
Combine refugees with Islam, which many, if not all, Afghan arrivals practice, and the issue of where they settle was bound to be explosive.
In case you didn't know, South Korea has only 60,000 native practitioners of Islam and 200,000 foreign Muslims. That's 0.5 percent of the population.
But Islamophobia regularly makes the news. In 2016 a government proposal for creating an industrial zone to produce halal food for export was scuppered amid fierce criticism, especially from the Christian community. Some unbelievable rumors in circulation at the time included how an Islam-approved slaughterhouse would be opening up and Muslims would enter South Korea with work visas only to form terror organizations.
And in 2018 the Korea Tourism Organization had to cancel an official plan for mobile prayer rooms at the Pyeongchang Olympics, hosted by South Korea, because of anti-Muslim campaigners. Charging the prayer rooms were only for Muslims, they formed an organization called the Pyeongchang Olympics Gangwon Citizens' Islam Countermeasure Association to successfully fight the measure.
During the first half of that same year some 500 Yemeni asylum seekers arrived on the southern Island of Jeju, taking advantage of no-visa entry policy for most foreigners (Jeju is a major tourism destination). When the news of this got out in early summer, a petition calling for a ban on "illegal asylum applications" and asking "why the Republic of Korea should accept refugees" garnered more than 700,000 signatures, and demonstrations vilifying the Yemenis as terrorists took place. In the end only two of them received asylum.
The 391 Afghans have had it much better. From the beginning the government called them "persons of special merit" and not refugees, in order to deflect potential criticism about bringing them to refugee-averse South Korea. This move wasn't without a flaw, since it appeared to suggest normal refugees don't deserve protection from the country, only those who contribute to it, but the rhetoric served its function during a critical time.
Perhaps because of this clever wordplay, the sentiment was in the government's favor. A survey by polling company Real Meter on their arrival showed that nearly 69 percent of respondents approved giving the Afghans long-term residency and work permits (the sample size of 500 left one wondering, though, whether it's an accurate picture of the nation's mood).
Once in South Korea, the arrivals were taken to a government facility in Jincheon County about two hours south of the capital for Covid quarantine and orientation. The local administration could have opposed the move, but not at all. And to commend the people of Jincheon for taking in the Afghans, Korean customers nationwide reportedly ordered local produce in droves, so much so that the county's online shopping site was overwhelmed. Donations amounting to 120 million won (about 100,000 USD) were also made to the South Korean chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross, for passing on to the Afghans.
The question still remained as to where the group would ultimately settle and how they would be received, and the news of protests in Ulsan does not bode well. The twenty-some protestors on Feb. 9 were parents of Korean children at the school Afghan children are to attend. Some have said that they don't want their own children to learn "Islamic culture". The Ulsan city government and education officials held a hearing with them on Feb. 10, and parents demanded that the Afghan children be instead sent to a foreign school Hyundai Heavy Industries opened in the early 1980s, mainly for children of its foreign workers.
(But in case they think it will be cheaper for the South Korean taxpayers, the tuition there is no pocket change.)
And the situation has been deteriorating since then. A civic organization called Hope Ulsan, which issued a statement welcoming the Afghan families, has been bombarded with almost entirely negative responses, the nicest of which may be "you have such a kind heart~^^ Why don't you take them to your neighborhood~♡". Comments don't look much better over on the Ulsan city government website, and a petition to the presidential office has been filed demanding that the Afghans be moved elsewhere. "There is no one who doesn't know the problems—politics, religion, safety, and security—caused by Islam in many countries in Europe and around the world," the text goes. "Ensure tax-paying citizens' security and safety first."
So far it's been signed by more than 14,000 people.
The belief that Muslims are violent and undesirable neighbors has been on display in another part of Korea since late 2020—in the city of Daegu not far from Ulsan. Its Kyungpook National University has a sizable community of Muslim international students, and they collected donations to build a two-story mosque in a residential area not far from campus. The project angered Koreans in the area, who put up banners calling Muslims terrorists and other unflattering names (they were taken down in October after the National Human Rights Commission determined that the language constituted hate speech). The residents also say a mosque will generate excessive noise and garbage.
The project is fully legal: the students already owned the houses demolished for the construction and obtained the necessary permit, but local officials canceled it after complaints started flooding in. The case moved to the courts, which has sided with the students twice so far—once in July and again in December—but the construction has not restarted.
The intolerance for Islam is often blamed on Korea's largely homogeneous culture and belief—reinforced by the Korean education system over decades—that Korea is a "single-blood" nation. But some see that Korea's largely conservative Protestant community is also deliberately fueling Islamophobia. Replying to pictures of an anti-refugee protest in Seoul back in 2018, one netizen tweeted, "No need to see. It's the churches again."
One organization spearheading the hate is called the Citizens' Action for Refugee Policies (its web address belies the neutral-sounding name: cafe.naver.com/refugeeout). Its head, a self-avowed Protestant, has called for visas for the Afghan special contributors to be suspended and all mosques to be closed.
The same group has held a protest against conscientious objectors to mandatory military service, with the reasoning that "conscientious objection is a UNHCR-recognized ground for claiming asylum, and this will be the trigger that allows deserters from Islamic war zones to flood Korea and apply for a refugee status." The event was attended by then-lawmaker Lee Un-joo, known for her close links to rightwing Protestant churches and opposition to homosexuality.
Korea's flagship conservative Christian media Christian Today is famous for running sensational headlines such as "The Ultimate Reason Refugees Are a Problem Is That They Are Muslims". So absurd is the church logic equating Muslims to evil that the progressive Protestant newspaper News&Joy calls it out when possible: its reporter Na Su-jin went to Daegu in October to get to the bottom of the mosque controversy and wrote: "When [local resident and Protestant] 'A' was asked about why he opposes the mosque construction, he replied that 'Muslims come to Korea to islamicize the Republic of Korea."
Na editorialized, "It sounds like all the fake news and distorted information that conservative Protestants have been utilizing to oppose Islam."
Of course, not all South Koreans are opposed to having Afghans in their country. 53 civic organizations in Ulsan including Ulsan Hope held a press conference on Feb. 9—the same day as the school protest by Korean parents—to stress that they "welcome Afghan refugees with joy". An editorial in a local newspaper argued: "there is no reason for us to fear or hate them on the basis of being Muslims."
But just when we might think there is hope after all, the same parents who had protested at Seobu Elementary School held a press conference on Feb. 17 to repeat their demand for the Afghan children to be sent elsewhere, and Koreans living around the Hyundai Heavy Industries employee housing, where Afghans have moved to, took to the media to voice their fear: they aren't afraid of Muslims, but they believe the value of their homes will decline because of the Muslims living nearby.
Cover: MBC report on the Feb. 9 protest against Afghan children enrolled at Seobu Elementary School in Ulsan